White plain, clear window

Often the difference between winter conditions here in northern Wisconsin and in more southerly locations is only incremental: a little colder and a little more snow where we live, and a week or two of extra winter on each end of the season. At other times the difference is striking, and that was the case just after Christmas when we visited daughter Sonya, son-in-law Chad, and grandsons Tucker and Perrin in Plymouth, about three hours south. They were supposed to visit us on Birch Lake December 22-25, but the extreme cold front and snow that affected most of the country derailed those plans. So Noelle and I waited until the weather stabilized and then drove down to their place.

I took along the ice fishing gear that was part of their Christmas gift. I’d intended for them to use it for the first time on our lake. Instead, on a mild and windless Wednesday morning, Chad and I took the boys to Lake Ellen, about 15 miles from where they live.  The difference in lake conditions was immediately apparent. Birch Lake, when I checked it out on Christmas Day, was a pristine white plain from the roughly eight inches of heavy snow that fell the week before, and the six inches of light powder on top that preceded the cold front. The days had been so cold that apparently no one had been out on the ice; as best I could see, no pair of boots or snowmobile skis had marred the surface.

On the other hand, the Plymouth area received our heavy snowfall as rain, and the three inches of fluffy stuff that fell later on Lake Ellen had been blown away by the time we arrived to try fishing. The lake ice gleamed, bearing only scattered patches of snow.  As we walked out, carefully, I monitored the stress cracks that tend to show the ice thickness. I also asked Chad to practice using the manual auger and drill a hole to get a true measure. He bored his way down, making a pile of white shavings, until the blades broke through. The ice was a generous six inches thick, yet clear as a window where not snow-covered.

Even though we had verified that the ice was sound and safe, walking on it was a bit unnerving. “This is the only way to walk on water,” 10-year-old Tucker observed. Over water about eight feet deep we could see every feature of the bottom. When we drilled holes for fishing and sent down tungsten jigs, each tipped with a waxworm, we could clearly see bait hanging just above the weeds. If we had dropped a quarter into a hole, I’m almost willing to bet we could have read the date on the heads side – the water was that clear. The ice boomed and new cracks formed right where we were fishing. Nine-year-old Perrin wasn’t convinced when I told him the booming didn’t mean the ice was fragile. We caught no fish; I was surprised that we didn’t see any, so clear was the view into their environment. But for the boys, and for Chad and me, just the walk on water made the trip worthwhile.

Photo: Grandson Perrin, age 9, on ther Lake Ellen ice.